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All about l'on and l'un


You may have read a sentence with l'on in it and wondered why the l' is in front of 'on' when normally you would expect it to go after e.g. "on l'a dit". The confusion arises here because the l' bit does not mean the same thing in these sort of sentences:
On l'a fait ... - here the l' is referring to 'it' as you would expect.
Si l'on trempe la main dans un bol ... - here it is used to make the words flow a little better from "si" to "on".
It is also used to avoid making a word that sounds like con (like puisqu'on).

L'on is used more in formal writing than anything else. It came from Old French and meant les hommes, at the time. As the language evolved, the word 'on' still took the l' part and is still used today, but for different reasons.
Here is a list of words that can use l'on. Note that l' is used with one syllable words that end in a vowel to help the word flow to the word 'on' or to avoid a qu'on sound which sounds like 'con':
Word Example
et ... et l'on a descendu l'escalier
lorsque lorsque l'on a félicité ...
Les pays où l'on boit le plus d'alcool
puisque Puisque l'on ne sait rien de ce que l'on quitte, qu'importe si on le quitte avant l'heure.
que je veux que l'on ramasse les papiers par terre
qui Être celui ou celle avec qui l'on aime faire des affaires
quoi Avec quoi l'on joue ?
si Si l'on rappelle la célèbre formule
At the beginning of a sentence or a clause (a smaller sentence within a larger one)
L'on ne sait jamais = one never knows
Lorsque j'ai fini, l'on m'a félicité de mon succès = When I finished, everyone congratulated me on my success

To make a pleasing sound, you do not use l'on:
-after "dont" e.g. le fils dont on est si fier = the son we're so proud of
-when "on" is in front of a word that begins with L e.g. savez-vous où on lave la voiture?


This is used in formal French too. It is used differently from above. Before I continue, I wish to clarify the uses of the word 'un'. It can mean the number one and it can be used as the English equivalent of "a" e.g. a book = un livre. When you use 'un' like this then you use it as you would expect to use it.
Before continuing, I want to remind you that pronouns are words that stand in place of something such as we, she, you and it. If you use "un" as a pronoun, then you use l'un instead. You can tell if "un" is being used like this because it will be in front of a preposition (such as "de") or a verb:

Elle a lavé l'un de ces planchers = She was washed one of these floors

When a sentence starts with 'un' then it is usually replaced with l'un to make it sound more pleasing:

L'un de vous doit ramasser du bois pour le feu = One of you must collect wood for the fire

It is also used in set expressions (notice some are l'une):
all in all = l'un dans l'autre
both (of them) = l'un et l'autre
either one, one or the other = l'un ou l'autre
either one, one or the other = soit l'un soit l'autre
everything is either one or the other = c'est tout l'un tout l'autre
neither one = ni l'un ni l'autre
one after the other = l'un après l'autre
one another, each other = l'un l'autre
there are two possibilities = de deux choses l'une
to each other = l'un à l'autre
One of them {  l'un d'eux
l'une d'elles
l'un d'entre eux
l'une d'entre elles
The above is different to the use with reflexive verbs which use words that look like these to clarify a sentence. You can use l'un(e) l'autre, les un(e)s les autres to directly mean something or l'un(e) à l'autre / les un(e)s aux autres to mean to or from somebody or something (an indirect reference):
nous nous sommes demandé, s'il rappellerait = we wondered whether he would phone back
nous nous sommes demandé l'un à l'autre, s'il rappellerait = we asked each other, whether he would phone back
Ils se regardent l'un à l'autre = they are looking at each other

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